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Analysts: Upcoming Summit Meetings Motivating Moves by Burmese Junta - 2003-09-11

Burma's military government recently announced changes in the personnel lineup that put the country's intelligence chief in the post of prime minister. The government also announced it would implement a so-called "road map" to democratization and elections, but released no details or timetable. Analysts say the timing of these moves is significant.

They say the appointment of Khin Nyunt is a bid to present a new face of Burma ahead of crucial international gatherings at which Burma's treatment of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is expected to be a key topic. Aung San Suu Kyi was detained after an attack on her and her followers by a government-backed mob on May 30 in northern Burma. The United States responded with new economic sanctions on Burma. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, normally reticent about criticizing a fellow member state, openly called for Aung San Suu Kyi's release.

Josef Silverstein, professor emeritus of international relations at Rutgers University, says the changes indicate that economic pressure from the West over Aung San Suu Kyi's detention is already taking a toll. Burma, he says, is being deprived of much-needed hard currency.

"The United States law that we just passed is taking effect," he said. "It had begun to take effect even before its date of August 28, when banks refused to honor letters of credit issued in dollars. I think this is the real trigger of a lot of action because suddenly the Burmese do not have access to very many dollars."

With a regional leaders' meeting looming in early October with a larger world leaders' summit shortly afterward, ASEAN member states have also been ratcheting up the pressure in calling for Aung San Suu Kyi's release. Mr. Silverstein says Burma needed an influential figure who is also a fluent English speaker to be the face of the Burmese government on the international stage, and, perhaps, to negotiate some kind of face-saving deal at home for Aung San Suu Kyi's release.

"This is a crucial meeting. The ASEAN, particularly Indonesia, has been talking about the Aung San Suu Kyi issue must be clarified, must be satisfied, before that meeting," he said. "Otherwise, ASEAN is going to be terribly embarrassed in front of the world as world leaders come there and directly confront them as well as Burma about her status. So, I think that we have in my estimation a two-week window here in which to negotiate her out of prison. And the change in administration was, I think, their first step."

David Steinberg, a Burma expert at Georgetown University, says any release of Aung San Suu Kyi puts the Burmese military government in a dilemma.

"If she goes out right now, the first thing she must say for her own political and moral position is, I want justice for those people who were killed on May 30," he said. "If the government doesn't do that, there's a real problem. On the other hand, keeping her incarcerated means that there is danger from the international community, who will complain about that. So they're caught in a very difficult position."

The ASEAN summit is scheduled to begin October 7 on the Indonesian resort island of Bali. The APEC summit will open October 20 in Bangkok.